It wasn’t much of a monster, but I stopped walking as soon as I saw it.
Mostly, it looked like a wet patch in the path, as if it were a low spot collecting rainwater and making the leaves and the dirt damper than the surrounding area. But I was pretty sure—even though I’d never seen one like it before—that it was a pudzu.
People argue about pudzus. There are at least two different kinds. The first kind is everywhere and they’re like little pools of acid. Step in one and it’ll burn off your shoes and your socks and your skin and down into bone, fast as can be. If you’re not smart enough to get away from it right quick, it’ll eat you all up eventually, although if you’re alive enough to step in one, I’d think you’d be alive enough to run out. But let’s just say you shouldn’t take your time about it.
Depending on how big it is and what color it is, there’s stuff you can throw in a pudzu to make it go away. You don’t want to feed it—giving it meat or blood or anything like that will just make it get bigger. But everyone keeps pudzu powder around to get rid of the little ones that show up out of nowhere. The powder dries them up and turns them into dust.
The other type of pudzu are much rarer. They hardly ever show up inside the city walls and I’d never seen one, only heard stories. Those pudzu look just like the others—exact same, a wet patch where there shouldn’t ought to be one, or if they’ve gotten big, a puddle with water that looks murkier than it ought.
But they’re not the same.
Some people say they aren’t monsters at all, that they’re portals to the monster world. Others say we can only see part of the pudzu, that the part on the top of the ground is the mouth and when you step into it, you slide on down into the belly, which is hidden either under the ground or in some other dimension, and then they digest you slowly.
Me, I’m not sure it makes a difference. If you step on the wrong kind of pudzu, there’s no running away from it. Swish, down you go and then you’re gone. And if they are a portal to the monster world, no one’s ever come back to say what it’s like over there. Safe bet, it’s not nice.
Anyway, I was still sticking close to the edges of the path and it seemed to me that there was room to go around it. But was it really a bazkide? The question the voice had asked was “Find what does not belong.” A pudzu… well, maybe it belonged in the forest, maybe it didn’t. It wasn’t unusual, not like a lion. Not like a gremlin.
Of course, by human standards none of the monsters belonged. This was our world before the monsters came. Back in the day, there were no pudzu. Some kid went walking in the forest, maybe they had to worry about bears, but not puddles that might eat them up.
That was a long time ago, though.
If I had a stick, I’d poke it in the ground, see what happened. If the stick slid way deep, I’d know for sure the wet spot was a pudzu. Then I could decide whether to point it out to the voice or not. But I didn’t have a stick.
The bag of nut bars Martine had given me was still hanging off my belt. I hadn’t eaten any yet—hadn’t needed to. But I opened it now and pulled a bar out. They were nice ones, not just grains, but with real bits of nut and even what looked like some dried berries. I sniffed it. Blueberries, maybe.
I broke off a tiny corner—hardly bigger than a crumb—and tossed it onto the wet patch in the path. It sizzled and smoked and then disappeared.
Yep, that was a pudzu. But the normal kind of pudzu, not the hole-that-would-swallow-you-whole kind.
I thought about it for a little bit while I took a nibble or two off the nut bar, then I stuck the remains of the nut bar back into my bag and walked around the pudzu, steering clear of its edges. A pudzu wasn’t out of place in a forest. Heck, it wasn’t out of place anywhere anymore. If it didn’t belong in an illusory forest, then neither did the bazkide and I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them so.
I ought to only have a few minutes left before my time was up, but I didn’t hurry and I watched the ground and the shadows even more carefully.
I only had time to find one more bazkide, though, and no one could have missed that one. It was disguised as a lamp post. Not like one of the lamp posts in the old cities or along the old roads, twenty feet high and arching over the street, and not a hook in the wall where you could hang an oil lamp to light the path to your door, but a black metal pole, sort of ridged, that stuck up out of the ground with a light on top sitting in a little house of its own. It was cute as anything. But I pointed to it and said, “That doesn’t belong,” and the voice chimed Six and then This trial is complete.
The lights came up and for a minute, I could see red walls, glowing with a warm light as if the fabric was letting in sunlight from the other side, through the forest. And then the forest faded away like it had never existed. Which I guess technically it hadn’t, since it was all illusion. If I had touched the pudzu, would it have burned me, or was the smoke and sizzle just part of the magic?
I glanced behind me in time to see a bazkide launch itself into the air. A couple others on the ground did the same. Up in the rope rafters of the tent, more bazkide sat.
I wasn’t scared of them anymore, not like I was with the first one I saw. I just stuck my chin up and waited for what they’d say next.